Education & Family

Tristram Hunt says A-level changes are 'confusing'

Exam hall Image copyright PA
Image caption A-levels and AS-levels are going to become separate exams

The changes to A and AS-levels in England are so confusing the Department for Education should write to every school to explain them, says shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt.

From next year, A-levels will be separated from AS-levels.

But some universities still want pupils to study AS-levels - and Cambridge has asked schools to carry on with them.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said the changes would remove an "unnecessary burden" on pupils.

Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders said "politics is getting in the way", with secondary schools facing "confusion and uncertainty" over planning for exams.

'Biggest issue'

Mr Hunt, in a speech at the Association of Colleges' conference, will accuse the government of "failing in its duty" to keep parents and pupils "properly informed".

He wants the permanent secretary at the Department for Education to write to the heads of schools and colleges explaining the changes to exams and to tackle "widespread confusion".

Uncertainty about AS-level changes is "the biggest real-time issue in secondary schools", says Mr Hunt.

He also wants the letter to explain the alternative arrangements that would be in place if Labour entered office after next year's general election.

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Image caption Tristram Hunt wants to reverse the separation of A-levels and AS-levels

From 2015, AS-levels will be separated from A-levels, which will become two-year courses with grades decided by final exams, as part of the government's drive for a more rigorous exam system.

But the AS-level will still remain as a free-standing qualification.

There has been criticism of the change from some universities, which argued that AS-levels had become a useful guide for selecting applicants.

The University of Cambridge has written to schools calling on them to carry on with AS-levels, saying that it provides a good way of finding the right candidates for their courses.

But for students and schools worrying about university applications, it raises the question of whether pupils could or should take both A and AS-levels to improve their chances.


Mr Lightman said that head teachers were struggling with a "lack of clarity" about how the A and AS-level changes should be introduced and the expectations of universities.

The two types of qualification are "co-teachable" for some subjects, he said, but not all subjects.

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Image caption "Our changes are not being rushed," says Nicky Morgan's Department for Education

"It is difficult to plan without the whole picture. Head teachers are very worried about making the right decisions for young people," he said.

Richard Atkins, president of the Association of Colleges, said that at a parents' evening this week he had seen evidence of the confusion, with parents finding the changes "baffling".

He warned of a "state of confusion and it's difficult to explain to young people and their parents what will be happening to these qualifications over the coming few years".

This was compounded by the phasing in of A-level changes, so that old and new forms will be running in parallel.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned that the "volatility in exams is a barrier to good teaching and higher standards".

"Neither schools nor students know where they stand. Qualifications are changing, mark schemes are changing, performance measures are changing and programmes of study are changing.

"Some qualifications are being removed and then potentially replaced at short notice and this applies to both A-levels and GCSEs," said Mr Hobby.

'Deep understanding'

The separation of A and AS-level is part of a wider package of exam reforms - most of which Labour would be unlikely to reverse.

The content of A-level courses is being rewritten, with the aim of raising academic standards, and there will no longer be a mid-year opportunity for resits.

There will be a greater emphasis on "linear" A-level courses, with a reduction in the modular approach of teaching and assessing individual course units.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said the changes for England's exam system would help students to develop a "deep understanding" of subjects.

"By decoupling the AS-level from the A-level, we are ending the routine of automatic, external assessment of students at the end of year 12. Removing this unnecessary burden from teachers and students means young people will have more time to study the fundamental concepts of a subject rather than sit through an endless treadmill of exams.

"Students will still be able to sit an AS before deciding whether to take a subject at A-level, but will no longer be required to do so by the government - instead the decision will lie with students and teachers.

"Our reforms are not being rushed - it is right that changes are made as quickly as possible, so that students can benefit from these new reformed qualifications as soon as possible."

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